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Yolo, Try to Be on Fleek

on-fleek2They drop into our In boxes like mad, twitching flies, these contests apparently designed to make us feel either startlingly young or hopelessly old and out of it. It’s either “How many of these ancient pieces of technology did you use?” or “How well do you know 2014 Pop Culture?” I pass on most of them, but when our editor sent me The New York Times’s Language Quiz, I took the bait.

Designed to test “how linguistically en vogue you are,” the quiz provides multiple-choice definitions for var…

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Comma Maven Meets Comma Queen

If the phrase “copy-editing memoir” quickens your heart, then you’re in store for a treat: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norton), by Mary Norris of The New Yorker. One of the many tasty tidbits in the book is that Norris’s title at the magazine actually isn’t copy editor, but rather “page OK’er”—

a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go …

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OK: Konspicuous, Kurious, Komical

single-k-letter-green-mdAt last it’s March, a month to celebrate the arrival of spring and the anniversary of America’s greatest word. On March 23, three days after the vernal equinox, comes the 176th anniversary of the birth of that word: OK.

Among the many unusual qualities of OK is the fact that we know exactly when and where it was created, thanks to the indefatigable research of Allen Walker Read of Columbia University. It came from the pen and the newspaper of Charles Gordon Greene. On Page 2 of the Saturday, Mar…

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That’s Not a Word

My friend Rick Valelly recently ate at a restaurant that used to be the commissary for Paramount Studios in Queens, N.Y. He kindly sent me a photo of half of the back of the menu (all that could fit on his phone, I think):

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The reason he sent it to me is the first word in the third line. There is no definition for intrical in dictionary.com, merriam-webster.com, or The Oxford English Dictionary. However, there is one at Urban Dictionary: “A word that doesn’t exist. Usually used by dumbasses who …

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Greek Weekend

As the Romans did thousands of years ago, so today we continue to hold the ancient classical Greek language in high regard. Among other things, this regard gives us a triad of Greek occasions on the second weekend of March 2015.

One is pi day. Not pie but pi, although many celebrate the day with pies. But this is the Greek pi, standing for perhaps the most famous number in mathematics, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The ancients, starting with Archimedes, figured thi…

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Labeling Words

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Photograph by Eli Gerber

Dictionaries occupy a special place in academe. In our libraries, unabridged dictionaries regularly lie open on pedestals, where we can go stand before them; the staging suggests their authority as a place to find answers about words. Rarely do we flip to the front of it to check what dictionary it is, from what year. Then I have read many an academic article that mentions a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary or another dictionary but fails to cite the work in…

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Having a Problem With ‘Having a Problem With’

I have a problem with the expression have a problem with. It always tempts me to think the utterer is admitting to a personal difficulty. But although nothing technically blocks that literal meaning, the phrase has developed another completely idiomatic sense. The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus says (in the entry you can see at Cambridge Dictionaries Online) that X has a problem with Y, in informal style, means “X finds Y annoying or offensive.” More briefly and vaguely, i…

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Girls, Girls, Grrrls

gone-girl-screencapHere she comes again. She’s been interrupted. She’s been left behind. She’s worn a pearl earring and had a dragon tattoo. She’s played with fire and kicked the hornet’s nest. When she’s not the other Boleyn, or working in the shop, she may be your #Boss. She’s not that kind, and she’s been gone. Only not far enough gone, because here she comes again, on the train.

You know who I mean. The Girl. The Title Girl.

Of the hundreds of books listed on Goodreads with the word Girl in the title, several …

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Free Speech, the Rough and the Smooth

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Free speech attacked yet again. Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, angered somehow by the privilege of growing up in peaceful Denmark rather than war-ravaged Palestine, sprayed bullets from an M-95 at random into the Krudttønden cultural center simply because a debate about free speech was being held there. He killed a filmmaker. (Later he killed a volunteer security man at a Bat Mitzvah celebration just in case we had missed his motivation. We get it: Islamist radicals hate Jews just as much as the…

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Perfect!

7-Biggest_Burger_2I belong to a generation that ate in restaurants only on special occasions. You know: Mom’s birthday. Or after visiting Grandma in the hospital. Or maybe in the airport restaurant, the one with the white linen tablecloths, when we went to fetch someone who was actually flying into town to visit us. So there wasn’t a foodie culture, much less a running dialogue on the language of menus or waiter-speak.

Today, while I find much of the observations about the language of restaurants fascinating—I …